COMETS was asked by the CNRS President to address the issue of the environmental impact of scientific research. This formal internal request comes at a time when the research community is deeply concerned about the sector’s responsibility towards environmental challenges. There is very broad agreement on the need for the research sector, like any other sector, to play its part in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. After establishing its carbon footprint, the CNRS is now actively setting up a transition plan. There are, however, significant differences in opinion when it comes to choosing practical steps to follow. Should all research that has or may have a negative environmental impact—remote sites, energy-intensive experimentation, or intrusion into a fragile environment, for example—be banned? How can environmental issues be reconciled with what are a priori contradictory demands for ‘excellence’ and competitiveness in research? Should research ethics now be supplemented by ‘environmental ethics’? Would such a step not hinder the ability of research to produce knowledge and innovative solutions, including responses to environmental damage? Because the positive or negative environmental impact of research raises many questions about the values, purpose and place of research in relation to what is a major issue for society, it must be approached not only from a scientific or political angle, but also from an ethical angle.
In this opinion, COMETS first considers that taking into account the environmental impacts of research should be considered as part of research ethics, in the same way as respect for human beings or for animals subject to experiments. Like the notion of ‘responsible research and innovation’, research ethics implies thinking about the effects of research on society, so it is the collective responsibility of the research community as a whole to factor in its environmental dimension.
COMETS understands this responsibility in a broad sense: it requires thinking about how to limit the footprint of ‘everyday’ research practices (buying better and less, optimising the use of digital technology, limiting travel and work-related trips (hereinafter referred to as ‘scientific missions’), improving the energy performance of buildings); but it must also lead us to consider the environmental footprint of research topics and the ways in which they can be addressed, for two reasons. Firstly, an approach designed to limit the carbon footprint is essential but inadequate in view of the challenges involved in preserving the biosphere (combating shrinking biodiversity and chemical pollution, preserving the health of ecosystems, etc.). Secondly, while research must—like any other activity—limit the footprint of its practices, its specific purpose is to produce knowledge in the service of society. This remit confers on it the particular responsibility of also questioning the uses that may be made of this knowledge (in particular its transformation into innovations) and how such uses can meet the problems encountered by society or, on the contrary, perpetuate and even aggravate them., The research community must therefore ask itself to what extent the use or development of a major piece of equipment (digital twin, particle accelerator, supercomputer) or work on a particular topic (synthetic biology, plant genome editing) is likely to have a negative impact on the biosphere, or to support unsustainable production or consumption patterns in the medium or long term, etc. Conversely, research must maximise its role as a driving force in producing and capitalising on knowledge that will enable solutions to be found to the ongoing environmental upheavals. While we should be wary of relying too much on the development of disruptive technologies in a relevant time frame, it is necessary to guide research more towards the pursuit of knowledge and solutions conducive to the transformation of society (multiplication of research programmes in this direction, with interdisciplinary bridges between applied and fundamental research that could support them, etc.).
COMETS is aware that environmental considerations are already an integral part of research (in fields such as chemistry, biology and nuclear energy, for example, experiments are subject to environmental standards; some research calls make funding conditional on the absence of environmental impact; many research programmes are designed to facilitate ecological transitions, etc.). COMETS is also mindful that many members of the research community are and have been in the vanguard, highlighting environmental degradation, alerting public authorities and seeking innovative solutions. It is precisely because of this particular role of research that COMETS insists on the importance of including the environment in the ethical issues facing this community. It considers that this approach, far from hindering the freedom, creativity and quality of research, is likely to encourage the development of research that is attentive to societal issues and relevant in the eyes of both civil society and the research community as a whole.
COMETS then discusses how the responsibility of the research community towards the environment should be exercised in practical situations. It is not up to the committee to arbitrate, labelling as ‘ethical’ or ‘unethical’ the often complex choices to be made in the name of this responsibility with regard to their environmental impact (how can environmental preservation be reconciled with other imperatives of all kinds, whether human health, the training of young people, scientific sovereignty, etc.? Should we prioritise the near future by prohibiting polluting research, or the distant future by banking on the potentially useful results of this research in preserving the environment?). It is up to the research community itself to open a broad debate on these issues. For COMETS, this is a prerequisite, well before any ’environmental assessment’ bodies or criteria are set up for research projects; while these are far from unnecessary, they could foster the routinisation of a questioning process that requires, first and foremost, in-depth collective deliberation. What is at stake is not only the awareness of the research community at large, but also the sharing of novel experiences between laboratories; the search for a good balance between frugality of research practices and too many administrative requirements; exchanges between research communities whose environmental impacts, needs and objectives are very different and between which it is advisable to prevent any risk of stigmatisation and division; an overall deliberation on research orientations and how they can meet a growing demand for justification by civil society; in the longer term, the adoption of guidelines.
COMETS recommends that this debate be supported as much as possible with tools, methodologies and, more generally, a scientifically sound theoretical framework shared within the research community. With this in mind, it first emphasises the importance of measuring environmental impacts and, to this end, building up knowledge on them, which is essential for an informed discussion and the identification of indicators and levers for action. COMETS is aware of the difficulties that such a measure raises, especially when it concerns the impact of research topics (the methods available are limited, and the time lapse between the choice of a subject and its possible impact on the environment makes any ex ante assessment complex). However, the committee notes that there has been an increase in work on the measurement of environmental impacts and the contribution of research to these impacts, and insists on the need to consider this a real field of research to be developed.
COMETS also calls for the environmental impact of research to be addressed from a proportionality perspective. While it is the ethical responsibility of research to systematically address this impact, any finding or prospect of an adverse impact does not theoretically constitute an obstacle to conducting research. The negative environmental impact must be weighed against the positive contribution of this research to the environment itself or to other values such as human health, the networking ability of young researchers and scientific geopolitics, whether in the medium or long term. In the face of various forces that lead to the expected benefits being exaggerated, proportionality implies defining, explaining and justifying the reasons for considering choosing one particular research practice, subject or item of equipment over another, and all the expected consequences.
COMETS is well aware of the operational difficulties that these recommendations imply, but believes that, given the magnitude of the challenges to be met, the research community cannot afford not to take such an approach.
Recommendations to CNRS management and research staff
Following its analysis, COMETS recommends:
1. Recognising that consideration of the environment is an integral part of research ethics; affirming in this respect the responsibility of research players to consider their activity in the light of environmental issues; this responsibility concerns not only the footprint of research practices but more generally the negative or positive environmental impact that the choice of a particular research subject and a particular way of addressing it (the research path) can have on the environment in the broadest sense, whether in the short, medium or long term.
2. Increasing the number of discussion forums enabling all research staff to debate the issues and scope of this responsibility.
Research laboratories appear to be the natural place to conduct this debate. In this respect, COMETS supports the request made by the CNRS President and the Conférence des Presidents d’Université (CPU, now France Universités) to appoint one person in each research unit as the sustainable development officer.
The debate should also be conducted in wider forums than laboratories, at the level of local, national or international scientific communities (CNRS institutes, other research organisations, university departments, research groups, scientific communities sharing the use of major research facilities, etc.) but also between these communities (academies and learned societies, scientific boards).
3. Providing the debate with a scientifically sound methodological framework that is shared within the research community. This framework should at the very least be based on two principles: the first is that of environmental impact measurement, itself supported by knowledge that has been built up on these impacts, and the second is of proportionality which, taking into account the peculiarities of each situation on a case-by-case basis, weighs up all the negative and positive impacts of research. With regard to measuring impacts, COMETS:
- supports initiatives taken to build up knowledge on the environmental impacts of research (greenhouse gas audits of laboratories, the CNRS and its institutes, in addition to research equipment);
- encourages pursuing such audits and recommends that the supervisory authorities facilitate matters, for example by simplifying the completion of an audit in the case of laboratories with multiple supervisory authorities;
- recommends that the CNRS and scientific foresight bodies support and undertake research to better measure the environmental impacts (greenhouse gases, pollution, damage to biodiversity, etc.) of new fields of research or the continuation of ongoing research;
stresses the importance of developing an ‘environmental impact culture’ within the scientific community, by proposing, among other things, training courses and interdisciplinary thematic schools on this subject.
4. More specifically addressing CNRS management, COMETS:
- recommends that the CNRS sustain and strengthen the means it uses to assess its impact on the environment in order to promote organisational learning and the acquisition of consolidated experience;
- stresses the importance of recognising and facilitating the ability of laboratories to provide innovative solutions for environmentally friendly research; calls for support of approaches based on local laboratory experience; recommends that the CNRS should create an open database of innovations of all kinds developed by laboratories and make it accessible, particularly to research organisations;
- encourages training departments to: raise awareness and train staff in the environmental dimension of research ethics; recruit staff to organise and run collaborative workshops and develop an ‘interdisciplinary culture of environmental impact’; pursue their efforts to enable research staff, regardless of their status, to devote time to the issue of integrating environmental issues into research as part of their job;
- recommends supporting research community members wishing to redirect their activities towards practices and subjects likely to contribute to better environmental sustainability.
In its relations with public and private decision-makers, the CNRS should give greater support to and highlight research community output (whether research, expert appraisals, alerts, etc.) that is likely to inform debates and stimulate action in favour of the environment.
5. COMETS encourages:
- the bodies responsible for programming and funding research;
- the bodies responsible for assessing researchers;
- the bodies of the National Committee for Scientific Research responsible for planning future research fields to reflect on how they can better factor the environmental impact of research into their work.
This article was first published by CNRS.